This is for my fellow white Americans. If you are white and consider yourself a feminist, or a liberal, or a progressive, or simply a good person, this is for you.
I have been haunted this week by the death of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old African American woman who was pulled over by police in Texas for failing to signal a lane change, and three days later found dead in a jail cell.
Her death – following so many other black women and men, girls and boys, who have been killed by police – gave rise to a horrifying new Internet theme: If I Die in Police Custody. For example:
– Know that they killed me. I would do everything in my power to get home to my family. (From @reignofapril)
– Don’t let them tell the world who I was. You tell the world who I was. (From @the4th_duck)
This year alone
It has been one year since Eric Garner couldn’t breathe.
Eleven months since the body of Michael Brown lay uncovered for hours on a street in Ferguson.
Eight months since Tanisha Anderson died in Cleveland as a result of police restraining her so brutally that her death has been ruled a homicide.
Three months since 25-year-old Freddie Gray, shackled and helpless, was flung around in the back of a Baltimore police van until he was mortally wounded.
One month since 14-year-old Dajerria Becton was thrown to the ground and forcibly subdued by a police officer at a Texas pool party.
One week since 18-year-old Kindra Darnell Chapman in Alabama was found dead in her jail cell only minutes after she had been locked up.
Why is all this just now happening? It’s been happening. White people are just now noticing.
What can we do about it?
What can we, the good white people of America, do about it? If we are not police officers or public officials or in a position of power? If we are busy with our own lives and struggles?
I am no expert, and I have no sweeping solutions to offer. But here are five suggestions of things we can each do in our own lives.
1. Connect the dots
This summer nine African American people were massacred in their South Carolina church by a white supremacist who had no trouble finding inspiration and affirmation in the world around him. Seven African American churches have been burned to the ground, and numerous female pastors have received death threats. The President of the United States has repeatedly been greeted by protestors waving Confederate flags.
And this summer we learned that for the first time, the number of African American children living in poverty in the U.S. has exceeded the number of white children living in poverty, despite the fact that white children outnumber black children by three to one. (Why any children should live in poverty in the world’s richest nation is another matter.)
These things are not unrelated. They are part of a system – a belief system, a values system, a political system, an economic system – called racism. You and I, white friends, are a part of this system whether we like it or not.
2. Educate yourself
I am not a racist. But I know it’s in me. And I know the system of racism eases my life like a strong breeze always at my back. Like a breeze, the system can be invisible to those it benefits. That’s why it’s important for white people to educate ourselves.
For me, the best way to do this is to listen to other people, particularly people of color, and to read. Here are a few suggestions:
“I, Racist” by John Metta (article)
“I am Jewish and Black Lives Matter” by Rabbi Stephanie Kolin (article)
“The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (article)
Color of Change (website)
Center for Community Change (website – and full disclosure, I work there)
Sister Citizen by Melissa V. Harris-Perry (book)
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (book)
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (book)
If you can get to marches, rallies or demonstrations for racial justice in your area, join them. If you’re lucky enough to live in a place where there’s ongoing organizing or activism on racial issues, bring your own spirit and energy to the fight. Collective action isn’t radical, it’s one of the ways people speak up in a democracy.
If you can’t join an event, create one. A candlelight vigil on your block. A book party to discuss one of the books above. Some way that’s doable for you to pull people together – even or perhaps especially white people – to examine how race works in our country and to bring about change. Racism is enforced by so many practices and policies, it will require all of our voices and hands to dismantle it.
Okay, this one is hard. When you see or hear racism from other white people, say something.
Obviously you should keep your own safety in mind; I’m not urging you to confront the raging demonstrator waving the Confederate flag. I’m encouraging you to object to the next racist joke you hear, to inform your uncle that his disparaging comments aren’t welcome at your table, to call your friend to talk about her racist and possibly clueless Facebook post.
I’ve done this several times. It’s always excruciating, and it never ends well. No matter. It needs to happen – and maybe you’ll be better at it than I am.
In theory, I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. We white people are so used to living and breathing racism that we may not even be aware of it. Perhaps if a friend or relative gently but firmly points out the racial harm in something we’ve said, we might actually think about it and consider a different perspective.
Unfortunately, I have trouble being kind but firm. I am more likely to be caustic and withering. This tends to offend the offender and, in social situations, the host. It may not lead to the thoughtful examination I aim for – but at the very least, one white person hears another white person declare that what they just said is not acceptable. It’s a start.
5. Open yourself to some pain
I am a white feminist who began a life of activism during the second wave of the women’s movement. In recent years I’ve seen a lot written about the shortcomings of our movement – then and now – when it comes to race and women of color. I’ve seen even more written about the failure of white progressives to truly grapple with race.
It hurts to read these things. My first reaction is, “Yes, but – “ I want to defend myself from pain, from other people’s (or my own) poor opinion of me and my actions. How can they think that about me, when my heart is so good?
I need to stop that.
Racism exists. It exists to benefit me and people like me. Maybe I didn’t build it. Maybe I didn’t want it. But I profit from it daily.
I can only dimly imagine the experience of suffering under racism. Of never feeling safe in the world. Of knowing that your radiant, open-hearted children will have to face that constant battering of the soul, will have their lives made smaller and more difficult and perhaps cut short.
It’s not easy to think about this. It’s not easy to read some of the materials I’ve suggested above. It’s not easy to talk openly with African American friends, and to know that they may not feel safe talking openly with me. But if we want to confront racism in our country and ourselves, the last thing anyone can worry about is whether it will bruise white people’s feelings to hear the truth.
So fellow white people, brace yourselves. This is going to hurt.
Extra credit – give money
If you can, make a contribution to one of the scrappy, underfunded grassroots organizations fighting for racial justice. Better yet, set up a monthly contribution that the organization can count on, even if you can only give a small amount each month.
It’s easy to give money if you can spare it – certainly easier than some of the previous suggestions. It’s also one important way that white people can help balance the scales. For context, check out this article by my friend and former co-worker Sean Thomas-Breitfeld on “Why it’s easier to raise money to fight disease than to fight racism.”
There are many admirable organizations to choose from. Here are a couple that I’ve given to lately.
How to be a good white person in America
I am still struggling to figure out how to be a good white person in America. Maybe you are too.
There are white people in the South who laughed and ate picnics under the dangling feet of lynched African American women and men. There are white people in Boston and Chicago who bared their teeth and hurled stones at African American children on their way to school. I know I’m not one of those.
But there are also millions of white people who turn away, who don’t speak up, who won’t take action, who think racism isn’t their fault or their concern. I don’t want to be one of those either.
Racism is not a Southern problem. It’s not a police problem. It’s rooted deep in the DNA of our nation, in how it was founded and financed. It flourishes in the laws and structures that isolate black people from power and security. And for white people, racism may live in the cobwebbed corners of our own minds and hearts, where even we are afraid to look.
Here, you hold the flashlight and I’ll grab the broom. Let’s go together. It’s time to get started.
20 thoughts on “Black Lives Matter to White People”
Thank you for taking the time to think and feel and craft your thoughts and helps into this significant post! Hugs to you.
Thanks for reading and commenting, Leslie.
“There are white people in the South who laughed and ate picnics under the dangling feet of lynched African American women and men.” This is not helping the cause, fuel for the fire if you will. I am a white man from the south, my wife is African American and my kids are mixed. Racism is universal in the sense that we have witnessed it equally from all sides. we discuss it frequently in hopes to understand how to explain it properly to our children when they’re a little older. Although time is the true solution, every generation grows more unaware of there countries history, more disturbed by unequal treatment of certain groups of people. Now, I know that racism exist, however, it exist multi-directional. I do hope we will continue to move forward creating greater equality.
I’m certainly veering from the original point. As a white man, I feel that most black people believe me to be racist, from a subjective standpoint, I certainly didn’t ask anybody, and its certainly not reasonable to assume that its true. Its just the way many white people believe that African Americans see them. In a sense that we are paying for the sins of racist people who have long been dead. As a southerner, I feel that most people believe the south to be the home of racism, its far from it.
I should also acknowledge the original point of the story. Its certainly concerning that this is and has been happening, and I’m glad we are making a stand. Great discussion.
I understand what you’re saying, Mike. But in terms of this blog post, you’ll notice that the very next sentence mentions white people behaving in racist ways in Boston and Chicago (which is where I grew up). The post also concludes by saying racism is not a Southern issue but a national one. You and I agree on that issue but not on others. Either way, I appreciate you expanding the conversation.
Reblogged this on Art Journal Atlanta and commented:
This is an issue close to my heart. I’ve been an anti-racism activist for 15 years, and ya’ll, I can feel the tide turning. Please take the time to read this.
Thank you! So glad you can feel the tide turning after all your years of activism.
As an activist, a specific terminology arose during the height of massacres in Guatemala and El Salvador. It was called, “Low Intensity Conflict” – a term used for the activity of the Death Squads. That is how this activity against people of color (there was that Indian older man who was visiting family and looked suspicious to the neighbors) has looked for a very long time. Love is the answer always, but one must not be idle in one’s love. I have to say that as someone who was active as a teenager with United Farm Workers, the war in Central America, the women’s movement, social change, and social education, I was utterly disappointed in the lack of creative community organizing of the 400,000 who marched in New York last Fall. With technology as it is, I was stunned that there was no further action beyond the marching. I would have thought that it would have been a perfect opportunity to continue the work – the creative work – of making the voice of the people clearly heard. If art, theater, music, and cooking/dancing, etcetera could be incorporated into this work, many more silent, sleepy people would be woken up and take action. Or am I just simply being an idealist? Is there a race relations educational program at a police department that uses trust building, artistic activities and theater play to work through one’s biases?
Yes, art, music, theater, etc. can all be so powerful in social movements. I wonder if a lot of it is going on at the community level but not well-known outside of the community.
Thank you for writing this.
Thanks for reading it.
While you have illustrated your opinion in a speciously balanced manner, your lack of understanding shines through when you write “It’s rooted deep in the DNA of our nation.”
Racism, rooted in xenophobia, goes beyond America, it goes beyond humans. The rejection of those which are different is a basic element of evolution and applies to all living things, even plants.
Humans are different only in their limited ability to rise above their instincts. Self loathing is not a solution to racism, love is. Reading a book only affects those with the depth to learn from the book, telling others to protest rather than simply love one another may appear to be a solution to you, it seems to me to be part of the problem.
Step outside your own experiences. Better yet, experience more of the world.
Thanks for expanding the conversation. Certainly can’t argue with your recommendation to step outside our own experiences.
Thanks for this, Lynn. There definitely does seem to be (finally) a new wave of awakening to the depth of this problem. I keep hearing sentiments similar to yours expressed by white friends all around me. Some of us here in my hometown of Aurora, IL, are trying to figure out a next step — how to help educate, participate, and confront.
I’m appalled, horrified, enraged, and disgusted when bad things happen to black people who did nothing to deserve it ..Who are law abiding good people. I’m very kind, friendly, and respectful to black people. Don’t lump me together with evil people who do bad things. Each person regardless of color is responsible for his and her own actions. I’m not responsible for other people’s sins. I can only be held accountable for my attitude and my actions. I do not approve of anyone being mistreated or disrespected regardless of the colour of their skin. However, dangerous criminals, also regardless of their color, have no right to expect good treatment and respect. We, for the most part, reap what we sow.
Thanks for keeping the conversation going, Lera.
“Don’t lump me together with evil people who do bad things.”
She’s not. She’s lumping you with folks like me and her and millions across the country who don’t actively do bad things, but who do benefit from the system and who aren’t necessarily doing anything to change that system. “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good
“However, dangerous criminals, also regardless of their color, have no right to expect good treatment and respect.” I beg to differ on two counts. First, they have every right to good treatment and respect, because we should respect other people as people even if they’ve done something wrong. How we treat those in our absolute power is the most telling way to see someone’s character. Further, you imply that many of the folks that are taking the brunt of this are dangerous criminals. Sandra Bland didn’t use a turn signal one time. Eric Garner was * allegedly * selling individual cigarettes. John Crawford was shopping. Millions of people are trying to put food on the table for their kids when they’re not called back for job interviews, or pulled over yet again, or arrested for a crime that a white counterpart would be given a warning for. That is not reaping what they sow, that is reaping the effects of decades of systemic racialized oppression and dehumanization.
I really suggest you take a look at the I, Racist piece. This is hard. It feels like it should be our responsibility. It feels like we’re appropriately outraged. But when we get defensive about people pointing out legitimate issues that need to be addressed, we only add to the problem.
Lynn, this is powerful, touching me at the core. Thank you for your honesty, your commitment, and for offering something real for those of us seeking a way to make real, sustainable, and worthy changes- in our own lives and communities.